When he blew a fastball past Jose Ramirez, who had homered earlier, for the final out, catcher Willson Contreras pumped his fist, and the crowd, already on its feet, roared its approval, exhaling for what seemed like the first time in a game that lasted nearly three and a half hours.
Before the game, the anxiety seemed so evident that Cubs Manager Joe Maddon was asked what he would say to ease everyone’s nerves in the stands.
“Please be nervous,” Maddon said before the game. “Absolutely. You should be nervous. We have to win tonight, so go ahead and be nervous. It’s up to us to get you beyond that moment and get back to Cleveland.”
The crowd’s nerves were jagged further when Ramirez yanked a low fastball into the left-field seats with two outs in the second inning to give the Indians a 1-0 lead.
Meanwhile, Trevor Bauer, the weakest link in the Indians’ three-man playoff rotation, cut through the Cubs’ lineup the first time with ease, striking out five and allowing only a single by Addison Russell, who stroked a full-count curveball to center field.
But the second time through the lineup, Bauer looked as vulnerable as he had throughout the playoffs, which was marked by a gash in his pinkie he sustained while repairing a drone.
Bryant lined a home run into the basket just above the ivy in left-center field to tie the score, 1-1, in the fourth, and bring the crowd to life. Rizzo hit the next pitch off the wall in right for a double. Ben Zobrist lined a 3-0 pitch to right for a single, but Rizzo had to make sure it cleared the infield and advanced only to third.
Next came the underbelly of the Cubs’ lineup, which has been so impotent this Series. Russell, Jason Heyward and Javier Baez entered Sunday with six hits in 39 at-bats. Behind them was David Ross, the 39-year-old catcher, and Lester.
Though the Cubs’ offense had struggled earlier in the Series, Maddon somewhat counterintuitively put his best defensive lineup on the field.
“I love counterintuitive,” Maddon said. “I love it, man.”
Maddon said he not only wanted his best defense on the field, but he reminded everyone that Baez was the Cubs’ best player over the first two rounds, including sharing the Most Valuable Player Award with Lester in the National League Championship Series.
Rizzo scored when Russell hit a dribbler down the first-base line for a hit. And after Heyward struck out, Baez laid down a perfect bunt just where Russell had hit the ball, loading the bases.
Though he had Schwarber — the slugger who returned for the Series from April knee ligament surgery — available to pinch-hit, Maddon stayed with Ross, who delivered a sacrifice fly that put the Cubs ahead, 3-1. Lester was allowed to hit and struck out to end the inning.
Lester, who had buzzed through the first four innings allowing only Ramirez’s home run, stranded Carlos Santana at third in the fifth, getting a borderline called third strike on Brandon Guyer to end a nine-pitch at-bat and retiring Perez on a groundout.
He nearly wiggled out of a bind in the sixth, getting Jason Kipnis on another disputed called third strike with Davis on second. But Lester left a two-out, two-strike fastball up in the zone for Lindor and he lined it into center field, scoring Davis and bringing the Indians to within 3-2.
The rest of the night was an exercise in patience and pleading for the crowd, but in the end — as “Sweet Home Chicago” blared and W banners were waved — all was well. The Cubs were alive, and next year could continue to wait.